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Fifth District Appellate Court Upholds Decision on Attorneys’ Fees to be Paid by MUSD in Voting Rights Lawsuit Print E-mail
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Written by B|V|N Newsroom   
Friday, 27 April 2012 08:25

Decision brings a conclusion to a case which started in 2008

MADERA – A state appellate court has upheld a Madera County Superior Court judge’s decision regarding the amount of attorneys’ fees to be paid by the Madera Unified School District as part of a 2008 lawsuit which challenged the school district’s method of electing its governing board members.

In a ruling dated Feb. 28, 2012, the Fifth District Court of Appeals upheld Madera County Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley’s ruling from August 2010, which stated MUSD was responsible to pay only $162,500 in attorneys’ fees to the San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher and Seattle University assistant law school professor Joaquin Avila. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Madera residents Maria Esther Rey, Carlos Uranga and Jesse Lopez Jr.

 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys sought $1.8 million in legal fees.

Additionally, the plaintiffs’ attorneys have said they do not intend to proceed further with a petition for review by the State Supreme Court, thereby concluding a case which began with a lawsuit being filed against MUSD in August 2008. The lawsuit claimed the “at-large” system used by Madera Unified to elect its governing board impaired the ability of Latino residents to elect candidates of their choice, and therefore violated the California Voting Rights Act.

Madera Unified did not oppose the lawsuit and, on its own, voluntarily moved toward the formation of geographic areas for use in a “by-trustee-area” method of election without any mandate requiring the district to do so.

By June 2009, MUSD held its first election utilizing the “by-trustee-area” method. Around the time of that election, the plaintiffs’ attorneys filed their initial motion for attorneys’ fees in the amount of approximately $1.2 million.

Over the course of the following months, that amount increased to $1.8 million.

From the outset, Madera Unified characterized the amount of fees requested to be unreasonable because of MUSD’s non-opposition to the lawsuit, and because of the district’s disposition of voluntarily moving toward the formation of trustee areas.

In finding Madera Unified was responsible for only $162,500 in attorney fees, the Fifth District Appellate Court stated in its decision:

“On appeal, appellants challenge the summary judgment and the amount of the fees awarded. According to the appellants, the County Committee should be liable under the (California Voting Rights Act) because it had the power to initiate a change in the method of voting within the District. Appellants further argue that the trial court abused it discretion in awarding less than 10 percent of the requested fees.

“As discussed below [in the ruling], the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment and did not abuse its discretion in reducing the fee award. Therefore, the judgment will be affirmed.”

 

Timeline of Events in MUSD Voting Rights Lawsuit

August 2008: MUSD receives lawsuit filed against it requesting the district change its system of electing governing board members from an “at-large” to a district-based system. The suit claims the “at-large” system dilutes the ability of Latino residents to elect candidates of their choice, and therefore violates the California Voting Rights Act.

September 2008: Madera County judge issues preliminary injunction on the certification of upcoming (November 2008) MUSD governing board election. The judge orders the election to take place once the district has voluntarily formed trustee areas.

October- MUSD begins working through the process of creating a by-trustee area

November 2008: election plan which contains trustee areas from which future school board members would be elected. Meetings are held with the Madera County Committee on School District Organization to first gain their approval of the plan.

January 2009: State Board of Education approves Madera Unified’s request for a waiver of the requirement that the transition to a by-trustee area election method be approved by the voters, clearing the way for the district to hold the November 2008 governing board election in June 2009 using the new by-trustee area plan.

June 2009: Plaintiffs’ attorneys file initial motion for an award of attorneys’ fees and costs in the amount of $1.2 million. The fee amount eventually grows to $1.8 million.

June 2009: MUSD holds governing board elections using its new trustee area map.

August 2010: Madera County judge rules that MUSD is responsible to pay $162,500 in attorneys’ fees, rather than the $1.8 million requested by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

February 2012: Fifth District Court of Appeals upholds Madera Superior Court ruling that MUSD is responsible to pay $162,500 in attorneys’ fees, rather than $1.8 million as requested by plaintiffs’ attorneys.

April 2012: Plaintiffs’ attorneys decide not to petition the California Supreme Court for review of the Fifth District’s decision, bringing the matter to a final conclusion.

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